Toronto

Parents, kids prepare for return to in-person learning as boards, TTC ramp up COVID-19 safety measures

GTA school boards share updated COVID-19 safety protocols ahead of Tuesday's reopening, which is now delayed for many due to a winter snow storm.

Schools in Toronto, Peel and York regions return to in-person learning Tuesday

Laure Saunier and her four-year-old son Matt are looking forward to getting back to their routine as more schools in the GTA return to in-person learning. (Submitted by Laure Saunier)
  • UPDATE: A major snow storm has forced many school boards to cancel in-class learning Tuesday. Check with your board before bringing your child to school.

As schools in Toronto, Peel Region and York Region reopen for in-person learning Tuesday, boards are reassuring parents and students they're taking more measures to make schools safer during the pandemic.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the decision to reopen schools was based on the advice of Dr. David Williams, the province's chief medical officer of health, with the support of local medical officers of health and the unanimous recommendation of the council of medical officers of health. 

"Ontario is ready to reopen our schools because it is safe," Lecce told reporters earlier this month.

When four-year-old Matt Saunier was asked how he feels about returning to class his response was: "I'm going to see my friends!"

Matt is in junior kindergarten at École Élémentaire La Fontaine in Kleinburg, Ont. His mother, Laure Saunier, says the school sent an email explaining what parents and students need to do before they go in and an update on safety protocols. She says it's a change in their routine that will benefit the whole family. 

"It'll be so great to have him in the classroom and for us to be able to do our meetings," Saunier said.

Toronto parent Laura Beer says she's glad for her six-year-old daughter's sake that students with the Toronto District School Board are able to go back, adding that her child isn't always engaged in online learning.

But even with the safety protocols in place, Beer says she still has some mixed feelings.

"I don't know if I felt I was quite ready for schools to go back just yet. I think I was expecting the shutdown and the school closures to last a little bit longer to get the numbers down a little bit more before we sent them back," she said.

Beer, who has also been balancing working from home, believes class sizes and air quality are big factors that will determine whether the return will be long term. She's also been worried about the daily COVID-19 case counts in the region.

"I hope the numbers continue to trend down for everyone's sake," she said. "There's lots of anxiety all around."

School board reopening plans

The Peel District School Board says physical distancing, hand hygiene, staying home if unwell and HVAC improvements were implemented at the beginning of the school year. 

The board says it will be following Peel Public Health's most recent recommendation that all students up to Grade 12, will be required to wear a non-medical or cloth mask while indoors, including in classrooms and hallways, and outdoors at school during nutrition breaks. That recommendation now includes kids in kindergarten.

The city of Vaughan issued a statement saying it continues to implement measures to ensure the health and safety of all staff and students, including providing additional training to school crossing guards. (City of Vaughan)

In a statement to CBC News, the board says active daily screening will continue as more students and staff return to in-person learning this week.

Ryan Bird, spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board, says the majority of the students who were participating in in-person learning prior to the school closures are returning to the classroom. 

Bird says the safety precautions in place before the closures remain, with the biggest difference being an update in Toronto Public Health's screening tool.

"One of the largest changes would be if anyone in your house has symptoms you are not to come to school," he said. 

"We're looking forward to having students and staff back in the classroom. At the same time we want to make sure we're doing so safely," Bird said. He added the board continues to work with Toronto Public Health.

The city of Vaughan says it has taken additional precautions with students returning to class, such as training crossing guards on COVID-19-related procedures and safety measures, and installing signs at all school crossing locations to reinforce physical distancing. 

Ministry of Education on safety

In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Education says it has strengthened measures for when students return, including enhanced screening before they enter school, mandatory masking along with higher quality masks, and the expansion of province-wide asymptomatic testing.

"The ministries have reached out to all local public health units and school boards to provide further information and offer support for targeted testing," the statement says. 

"Local public health units will determine where this testing is needed, working closely with the local school boards, and we will continue to support with our partners on this testing approach." 

Additional health and safety measures were outlined on Jan. 20 in a memo to school boards. They include:

  • Mandatory masking for students in Grades 1-3 and outdoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained.
  • Enhanced screening protocols.
  • Discouraging students and staff from congregating before and after school.

The province says it's also delivering 3.5 million three-layer cloth masks to school boards for the second semester to supplement students' own masks, and providing an additional $115 million to support safety measures for students' transportation and recruiting bus drivers.

TTC prepares for more students using transit

The TTC is reassuring parents and students that they can count on the service to be a safe mode of transportation. 

"The TTC is preparing for the return to in-class learning by restoring express bus routes, deploying 60 additional buses to service secondary schools, and implementing strategies to ensure the continued safety of transit riders throughout the network," said TTC Chair Jaye Robinson in a news release.

The transit system says it's also performing additional thorough cleaning of vehicles and providing free access to hand sanitizer and masks.

The release adds TTC is working closely with school boards to understand enrolment numbers, start and dismissal times and adding staff at stations with increased student use to monitor crowding.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.

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